Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Conservative Explanation for the Electoral College Gets the History Wrong

If you want some inaccurate history regarding the Electoral College, conservative writer Bill Whittle offers some in this video clip.  Whittle recounts the tale I often hear, especially from conservatives, that the Framers designed the Electoral College as part of a grand plan to give smaller population states more of a role and to make presidential candidates campaign in lightly populated states not just large population centers.

Of course, the logic behind the explanation breaks down even before you get to the history.   The electors each state has is equal to the number of U.S. Senators plus U.S. House members.  So the number of electors is already roughly proportional to the population in each state.  The Electoral College doesn't force candidates to spend time campaigning in Wyoming, Montana and Alaska (3 electoral votes each) versus the hotly-contested larger populous states such as Ohio (20 electoral votes) and Florida (27 electoral votes). 

Then you have the situation that 48 of 50 states award electors according to a winner-take-all system, which means that states that lean strongly in one direction or another such as Democratic California (55 electoral votes) and Republican Texas (34 electoral votes) are generally ignored by the candidates.  While a straight popular vote election for President would skew where the candidates for campaign, it is actually the state winner-take-all system, which isn't mandated by the Constitution and can be changed by each state, which results in campaigns eschewing spending time in California and Texas.  You can bet if Republicans could win electors in California and Democrats could win them in Texas, their presidential candidates would campaign there.

Whittle is flat out wrong on the history.  The reasons for the Electoral College is explained in Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper No. 68:
THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded.   I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.  
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President. But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office.
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. Though we cannot acquiesce in the political heresy of the poet who says: "For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,'' yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.
Rather than the explanation offered by Whittle, the Founding Fathers designed the Electoral College to be an enlightened, deliberative body, one somewhat shielded from the whims of democracy. They believed that this deliberative body of electors, assembling in their respective states, would debate and consider information regarding who would be the best to serve as the country's executive. In the situation where a presidential candidate could not muster a majority, the Founding Fathers provided that another enlightened, deliberative body, the House of Representatives, would select the President.

The Electoral College has not at all unctioned as the Framers intended.  That does not mean, however, the Electoral College doesn't have some important advantages which Whittle hints at. The Electoral College, for example, does highlight the wonderful federal nature of our system and the role states have in selecting the President.  In the event of a close election, recounts are confined to a few states.  Imagine the problems conducting a nationwide recount should the selection process be by nationwide popular vote.  With the Electoral College, any recount of the popular vote is confined to, at best, a handful of states.

When discussing the Constitution, it is usually liberals who like to rewrite the history regarding the intention of the Framers.  But when it comes to the Electoral College, it is too often my conservative friends who get the history wrong.


Nicolas Martin said...

The electoral college was one of the efforts the founders made to thwart the direct democracy they so feared and detested. It was also hoped it would constrain the power of national government.

Madison said:

The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate, as they now are in the existing Congress.

So far the government is federal, not national.
The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society. The eventual election, again, is to be made by that branch of the legislature which consists of the national representatives; but in this particular act they are to be thrown into the form of individual delegations, from so many distinct and coequal bodies politic.

From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many federal as national features.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Right, but the EC had nothing to do with making presidential candidates campaign in remote states with little population as Whittle suggests. Most importantly they envisioned deliberative bodies in each state deciding who would be the best President.

toto said...

Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state-by-state winner-take-all methods.

The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

No recount would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 56 previous presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.

The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote approach, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a "final determination" prior to the meeting of the Electoral College.

The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush's lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore's nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

toto said...

The National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded by states in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states). It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ Electoral College votes from the enacting states. That majority of Electoral College votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don't matter to their candidate.

And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning candidates in a state are wasted and don't matter to candidates. Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it was cast.

Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in the current handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

With the Electoral College, and federalism, the Founding Fathers meant to empower the states to pursue their own interest within the confines of the Constitution. The National Popular Vote is an exercise of that power.

The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes, ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, in 2012 will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters.

Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

States have the responsibility and constitutional power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

Paul K. Ogden said...


I threw out the recount situation more or less as an afterthought. While I agree with you a recount is probably more likely under the current electoral college, rather than under a direct popular vote system, my point was that with the EC the recount would be concentrated in a handful of states.

If a recount were needed in popular vote system, the recount would be in all all 50 states which would be a logistical nightmare since each state has their own rules and procedures regarding recounts.

Rich Rubino said...

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